Herero dresses – the bigger, the better

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Text and Photos by Lisa Young

The enormous crinoline dress styled in Victorian tradition is still strong among the Herero women of Namibia, who are extremely proud to wear this distinctive fashion.

O ut of the haze and heat of the Namibian desert a tall, elegant African woman strode towards me in a long Victorian dress. For a Londoner, well versed in the latest fashions of the Royal Borough, this incredulous sight led me to believe I was experiencing a mirage.

But it was no heat-induced hallucination. In the nineteenth century German missionaries settled in Namibia, bringing with them all the prejudice that centuries of civilisation had bred into them. The traditional semi-naked dress of the Herero was unacceptable to these paragons of virtue and eventually the Herero women were coerced into adopting the Victorian dress, adapting it into the style so distinctive today.

This Victorian tradition is still strong among the Herero women of Namibia, who are extremely proud to wear this dress. Locally known as ohorokova, the enormous crinoline dress worn over several petticoats includes a bodice that buttons up close to the neck, long sleeves and a shawl worn across the shoulders. To witness Herero women walking in the streets of the city or performing daily chores on the family homestead in their colourful Victorian dresses is a sight to be cherished.

Fascinated by the ohorokova and curious to find out more, I travelled to a town called Okahandja, 71km north of Namibia’s capital city, Windhoek. On the outskirts of town, at the end of a long and dusty road, is the small community of Ovitoto. Tucked away behind rolling hills dotted with grazing cattle are a handful of small family homesteads, with children playing and women in their regal gowns taking care of daily chores.

On this particular day in Ovitoto, women were preparing themselves for a funeral that would take place in a neighbouring town. On such occasions their best dresses are embellished, and up to eight layers of petticoats are worn to make the dress as voluminous as possible. On a normal working day three or four petticoats are worn. I was told that the more voluminous, the more impressive the dress. One young man informed me that older and larger ladies tend to wear fewer petticoats so they don’t look too big!

Today, married and older women wear the dress daily, while unmarried and younger women only wear it on special occasions, such as weddings and church gatherings. On Maharero Day, Namibia’s most colourful annual cultural event, thousands of Herero gather to pay homage to their ancestral leaders in Okahandja. The women march through the town wearing special long red dresses with a black bodice, intricately decorated with gold braid. The outfit is topped with the equally important red headdress. This momentous celebration takes place on the weekend closest to August 23.

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The extraordinarily wide headdress, the otjikalva, is integral to the outfit. Fabric is wound around the head and formed into long points, said to represent cow horns. Cattle are a major focal point of the pastoral Herero culture and the headdress is a symbol of respect, worn to pay homage to the animals. A decorative pin of individual choice is worn on the front of the headdress.

In early days dresses were made from different pieces of cloth stitched together to create a patchwork-style dress. Many older women still wear patchwork dresses, as well as a smaller headdress, which they wear continuously and rarely take off, even when they sleep. The smaller headdress is easier to manage and less complicated than the larger horn-shaped headdress.

In the past, a woman had to be married to wear the elaborate dress, or she had to gain permission by participating in a special ceremony. Today, however, some of these traditions have been relaxed and now women, whether they’re married or not, can choose to wear the dress. During early childhood children run about partially naked wearing a traditional omutjira, (an apron covering the front of the body, but leaving the rear exposed) and a decorated belt and strap. The strap dangles behind to represent a cow tail. Girls wear slightly longer aprons and straps, helping to distinguish between the sexes. It’s also convenient to grab hold of when the child tries to run away from the parents!

On the farm in Ovitoto my hosts showed me a local organic perfume called orupapa, made from ground plant root. The perfume is light brown in colour and when sprinkled onto each petticoat layer gives a pleasant, earthy and slightly spicy smell.

Stealing time between farm and house chores, women in rural areas may take up to one month to complete a dress, while in the towns a professional seamstress may take three to five days. Both sewing machines and hand stitching are used to sew the fabric on this unique, one-design dress. All dresses are shaped the same, differing only in colour, fabric pattern and buttons.

Once the fabric and buttons have been selected, the dress can be cut out, without the help of a pattern. Fabrics are imported from South Africa, the cost depending on the quality and amount of fabric required. The price per metre varies between N$20.00 – N$40.00 and approximately nine metres of fabric may be used for each dress. The average overall price including fabric and buttons is N$350.00. Today, brightly printed fabrics are favoured and it’s not unusual to see ladies trying to outdress each other in terms of vivid colours or volume. A woman can own up to 18 or more such dresses in a lifetime. To complete their look, a modern belt with a metal buckle is worn high above the waist and as a final touch, a pretty broach is pinned to the dress. Any type of shoe may be worn.

The Herero ladies are used to the size and weight of the large dresses. One lady explained that they are not really heavy; they just look bulky because of the petticoats. Despite the volume of the outfit the ladies never look overly hot. The petticoats are individually made from cotton and the dress from lightweight cotton or nylon. I asked if the dress was hot to wear and was told yes, especially during the extreme summer heat when temperatures can reach 40ºC (104ºF). But they were nevertheless proud to wear them, regardless of the temperature.

On my return to Windhoek I was asked to give three ladies a ride in my car. With the copious amounts of petticoats and fabrics piled high on the back seat and spilling into the front, there was barely room for me!

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This article was first published in the Flamingo - July 2004 issue.
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia is a high-quality glossy Namibia travel and lifestyle magazine tasked with promoting Namibia to the world. With riveting stories, first-hand encounters and magnificent photographs showcasing tourism, travel, nature, adventure and conservation, TNN is the ultimate and most comprehensive guide to exploring Namibia. Travel News Namibia is published in five different editions per year. These include four English- language editions and one German. Travel News Namibia is for sale in Namibia and South Africa.

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